The changes in construals of the self discussed in the last post were merely the flip side of new construals of sociality. This pairing helps correct narratives about the modern “rise of individualism” at the expense of community; individualism is learned, not natural, and “belonging” is an innate need that does not disappear with modernity. Rather, the sources of belonging become impersonal, direct, and “flattened.” We shift from a pre-modern social model where members are embedded within a hierarchical chain of being to one in which members of society perceive their fellow citizens and the political order as instruments to achieve common benefits— security and prosperity—from a position of (theoretical) equality among free individuals. How did we get there?
Not unlike how we got to the buffered, disengaged “individual” self in our last post: we develop objectified, instrumentalist ways of understanding the social and political order. Changing notions of natural law and moral order, the emerging focus on the economy, and the rise of the public sphere are some of the loci for these transformations of the western social imaginary.
With Grotius and Locke’s new versions of natural law in the seventeenth century, we see the roots of the modern moral order emerging. Previous conceptions of order understood reality to be shaped by self-realizing Platonic forms or by a correspondence between all levels of nature (micro) and the divine/Ideal order (macro). Society constituted different hierarchical but complementary orders in which one’s function—and worth— depended on their intrinsic place within a larger social whole. In contrast, Grotius and Locke reject the normative telos in the Aristotelian-Thomistic version of natural law, as telos was seen as “potentially circumscribing our freedom to determine our own lives and build our own societies” (184). Rather, they see reality as inert and non-normative; it is constructed or reformed through the agency of disciplined, disengaged selves. Society constitutes “individuals [or in later versions, a pre-political “nation”] who come together to form a political entity, against a certain pre-existing moral background and with certain ends in view” (159). Instead of being shaped by pre-existing or transcendent Forms, political society derives its normative order from the nature of its constitutive members and their actions. These free, rational, sociable agents—equal in a State of Nature— consent to or “contract” an order (government) that serves as an instrument for the mutual benefit (i.e. prosperity and security) of these individuals, and the defense of their natural rights (chiefly, freedom) .
This understanding of governance starts to become expressed in economic terms, where the ruler/subject relationship is metaphorically recast as a “necessary and fruitful exchange of service.” Soon, governance shifts from being metaphorically economic to literally economic, where government exists to protect and promote the economy. This new focus on the economy is also caused by other various political, religious, and social factors—chief among them, the Weberian insight regarding the economic ramifications of Protestantism’s rejection of Catholic hierarchical modes of spiritual life. Protestants believe “all Christians must be 100 percent Christian” in all vocations and all parts of ordinary life. The sanctification of ordinary life, Taylor argues, has had a “tremendous formative effect on our civilization” far beyond its religious variants—which we’ll visit in more detail in later posts. For now, this meant that economic pursuits—previously associated with vices of greed and competition—were recast as morally legitimate and a locus of the ordinary life that is now the “site for the highest forms of Christian life” (178). The economy exemplifies the focus on harmonizing self-interests for mutual benefit, without any ruling agent or guiding telos.
Just as the economy achieved an identity that was independent from and legitimated the polity, so with the rise of the public sphere. This crucial feature of modern society is the common space in which members of society “meet” through a variety of media to critically debate matters of common interest in order to elaborate rational views that should guide government; now enlightened public opinion, rather than God (at least directly) or the Law of Nature should guide and check power. What sets the modern public sphere apart from older notions of the polis/public sphere is that this space is self-consciously outside power but is “nevertheless normative for power” because of the legitimacy imbued by its purportedly non-partisan, rational discourse. Another key feature is that the public sphere is not rooted in anything transcendent (God, traditional law, etc.); it is rooted in secular time and contemporary, common action. The secularization of time is crucial to this development of the public sphere and what Taylor calls the “direct-access” society, in which members have equidistant, unmediated access to the center of power. Citing Benedict Anderson, Taylor explains that the new sense of time as vertical slices linked by simultaneity or sequence, sans contact with or eruptions of “higher time,” facilitates a new sense of belonging to a nation. All events are placed in “unambiguous relations of simultaneity and succession,” flattened and emptied of intrinsic significance. This creates a “horizontal” society with no high points or privileged persons or agencies who mediate them; “each member is immediate to the whole”—at least, normatively, if not in practice. These modes of imagined direct access are different facets of modern equality and individualism—which, as stated at the beginning, is not shorn of belonging, but rather belonging to “ever wider and more impersonal entities: the state, the movement, the community of humankind” (211). “Network” or “relational” identities are placed with “categorical” ones that are based not on concrete relationships but perceived similarities. Now one’s worth or status is no longer dependent on an intrinsic place and function within in a larger social whole; it is self-referential, and normatively equal .
Scaling back, we see that these new notions of political and commercial order as systems of harmonized self-interest are also reflected in new visions of cosmic order and God’s providential rule. Rather than God’s providence creating an entire framework in which the order of our world, stars, planets, is set and then mirrored in the micro-design of all creation, down to human beings (and even their organs), the new cosmic order is one in which things simply “cohere” because they serve each other in their survival and flourishing. God’s providential rule is reduced to “good engineering design” which, after the “anthropocentric shift” of the 17th and 18th centuries, has everything to do with human happiness and flourishing—and nothing more. This is where Taylor takes us in the next chapter.
Reading this chapter with an eye on Mormon intersections, I find helpful language for understanding certain frictions that some Mormons may experience in their institutional and cultural participation in the Church. On a general level (not specific to Mormonism), those accustomed to the flattening and equalizing nature of direct-access sociopolitical/commercial society and the public sphere may find it jarring to operate in a religious gear of hierarchical, non-transparent, mediated institutional participation. That religious and sociopolitical orders do not operate the same way is hardly a newsflash, nor is that a bad thing. What can make it difficult especially for women, in my experience-and on which I’ll focus this riff-, is also shifting moral gears; for as Taylor points out, political theory involves moral theory. Modern liberal secular society is based on normative conceptions of freedom and equality. And when some women experience their treatment or participation in Mormonism as a demotion from their secular experience, it’s not about women simply being deprived of or wanting more “power” or control. It’s about finding that certain normative expectations of secular life do not translate clearly in their religious life. And if they are giving up normative expectations to equality and freedom when they switch gears, is there something richer that Mormonism offers them in exchange?** To some women, yes—the gender complementarity of Mormonism offers a place where their womanhood matters on an eternal scale, and whose divine template ensures both equality and difference that far eclipses the flattening equality of secular life. To others, Mormon gender complementarity can feel like an arbitrary inequality, especially in the ugly mathematics of polygamy and the persisting asymmetry of temple rituals, and the overall inconsistency of explanations for a gendered priesthood . The imago dei feels fractured unevenly, threatening Christianity’s guarantee that we are all fundamentally equal.
I’m not saying political norms should dictate religious norms (and it would be wrong to separate them, in any case; western liberalism is, in many ways, a product of western religion, as Taylor shows); and the ones undergirding liberal secularism have their own set of problems and shortcomings. And Mormonism does indeed offer rich resources for equality and freedom and other values besides; I’m not sure what other religious faith enshrines autonomy, freedom, and sociality – the best of Enlightenment values, I think – the way Mormonism does. The ultimate telos of a fully independent spiritual self whose agency is undiminished by ‘creaturely’ status and whose full flourishing is nevertheless actualized through relationships (God’s covenant relationship, marriage, Zion, the kingdom) is, to me, an exquisite theological combination. But in the daily workings of Mormon culture, infrastructure, and doctrine, those values may come through very unevenly or in some ways, not at all. I think it’s worth considering the deeper moral assumptions that undergird secular and religious life and how they shape the experiences of those inhabiting this western secular age and Mormonism at the same time.
**Edited addendum: In retrospect, it seems important to consider how the Atonement upsets all sorts of frameworks of equality and freedom, with the radical asymmetry of the sacrificial love and redemptive grace, the unearned invitation into a covenantal relationship. In some ways, trying to compare any such “normative frameworks” or “value trade offs” may be the height of apples and oranges. But it also seems inappropriate to conflate the frameworks of the Atonement with those of the Church and additional doctrines, just as it is to separate those of the Church and those of the secular world from which it is at least partially formed, and in which we dually operate. In short, I don’t want to ignore what for most members is the overriding ‘framework,’ but I don’t think that makes these questions moot, either.
FN 1 – Of course, this is all aspirational before it is realizable, and even then, the establishment of this order unfolds slowly and unevenly, and continues today. (Eighteenth-century thinkers, for example, didn’t even conceive of applying this theory to other basic hierarchical complementarities, like husband/wife, master/servant, lord/peasant, educated elite/masses).
FN 2 – As I read more of Taylor’s other work, I start to read Secular Age somewhat differently, so I’ll make an addendum to the last post on the emergence of the buffered, disengaged, self-referential individual. It is easy to assume Taylor is lamenting the development of our secular, modern age, and read into his analysis an implicit sense of loss or nostalgia—but this is not entirely the case. Secularism and modernity have produced good fruits, in Taylor’s eyes. For example, in his own political philosophy, Taylor believes that the development of the self-referential self, whose rights and worth are “radically unconditional” and no longer “dependent on such things as gender, cultural belonging, civilizational development, or religious allegiance” is an utterly positive development , and one more in keeping with Christ’s message. Furthermore, this hallmark of modern liberal political culture was not possible until Christendom became separate from civilization—or in other words, until secularism happened. On the other hand, Taylor believes that the development of instrumental reason—one of the key features of the disengaged self—has morally crippled the western modern self, as this principle of the “maximization of the value sought” flattens all problems and pleasures, including higher moral ones, into “instrumental problems of desire satisfaction.” Much of Taylor’s political philosophy is concerned with correcting this problem, which I won’t go into here, but I note this as an example of how one should be cautious in reading nostalgia or lament into Taylor’s narrative. Taylor’s own stance is not the main point of this blog series, but I think it’s worth clarifying at certain points. [See Maynell, Canadian Idealism, for more on Taylor’s political philosophy].
FN 3 – For some Mormon women, that general friction may feel particularly exacerbated because their access to the institutional center of power is inherently more mediated explicitly by gender (i.e. to God, through Adam, or to decision-making offices, through priesthood leadership). Their mediated access may feel more conspicuous because Mormonism straddles different styles; all men have access to priesthood office in a priesthood-of-all-believers style (Protestant) that is nonetheless strictly gendered male (Catholic). The constant rotations of local callings significantly attenuates the sense of hierarchy and the threat of fixing one’s intrinsic worth based on one’s function in it, except that women (and single people, for that matter) are barred from many of those callings. Likewise, prayer provides unmediated access to God’s grace and power, but other forms of God’s grace and power (healing, baptizing, sealing) are mediated through gendered priesthood keys. While Mormons, like Catholics, justify male priesthood on the precedent of scripture (Christ/apostles are male, etc.), Mormonism already has a precedent for overriding scriptural patterns in the case of temple anointings that distribute powers and functions gendered male in scripture to women and men alike. That, in my opinion, profoundly undermines the (historically simplistic, at that) scriptural precedent for a gendered priesthood.